Commentary on Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29
These selections come from the third of the three chapters that comprise Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
I understand the Sermon to provide examples of and instruction for Jesus-followers who live on the basis of their encounter with God’s reign or empire. Jesus announced and demonstrated the presence of God’s reign/empire at the end of Matthew 4. The Sermon beginning in Matthew 5 addresses the question — very fruitful for preaching — what sort of life does God’s reign shape?
The preacher might elaborate these readings as envisioning life in the community shaped by God’s empire and justice. Matthew 7:1-6 delineate interactions among Jesus’ followers marked by self-awareness and humble, compassionate correction of the other rather than condemnation. Matthew 7:7-11 link prayer and faithful living. Matthew 7:12 provides a generalizing axiom for human interactions. Matthew 7:13-14; 24-27 contrast two ways of life and destinations. They highlight accountability to God for how people live. Matthew 7:28-29 conclude the Sermon by describing responses to it.
Do not condemn
The common translation of Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge” is neither accurate nor helpful. As everyone knows, we make judgments everyday despite the disclaimers, “it’s not for me to judge” or “to each to their own.” We would be in deep trouble and frequent danger if we did not make discernments about people, situations, and actions.
In the face of this daily experience, the translation “Do not judge” perpetuates a sense that the Bible is out of touch with everyday life and remote from daily living. It suggests the Sermon offers an impossible ethic.
Several other factors speak against this translation. Ironically commanding people not to judge violates the command! Much of the Sermon trains people to make judgments or discernments about how they live in relation to God’s purposes. In the previous chapter, Jesus has judged synagogue practices (Matthew 6:2, 5), Gentile prayer (Matthew 6:7), and lives focused on material goods (Matthew 6:25-34).
Matthew 7:1 actually recognizes we make judgments daily by excluding a certain kind of judgment. The verb employed here commonly designates eschatological judgment or condemning someone to hell. This use indicates a translation of “condemn,” with the present tense form suggesting a translation of “Do not go on condemning to hell” (Matthew 7:1).
This translation addresses various situations involving other people: conflict, fear of outsiders, intolerance of difference, prejudice, disdain, anger, etc. In such situations, people can write others off as beyond redemption, outside God’s grace, and consign them to hell. The command forbids the arrogance of denying mercy, even dignity, to another. Followers of Jesus have no right to declare someone is beyond God’s mercy.
A sermon might warn that if a disciple denies mercy to another, mercy will be denied to that disciple (Matthew 7:1-2). Instead it urges self-awareness and prioritizes self-correction in engaging another (Matthew 7:3-5).
Pearls and swine
What does the strange verse 6 about the holy and dogs, pearls and swine contribute?
Some treat it as a free-floating verse and perhaps it was. But it is not free-floating here. It follows Matthew 7:5 urging to humble, self-aware correction of another by addressing how the other responds. As we know from workplace evaluations, giving and receiving feedback can be perilous. Self-examination and self-correction cannot guarantee that another will receive correction. The feedback or correction (holy; pearls) can be rejected and trampled underfoot (dogs; swine). Counter-attacks can result. Correction is not to be pressed when it is not received (Matthew 7:6).
Treating others as one would wish to be treated summarizes the human interactions envisioned throughout the Sermon (Matthew 7:12). Those interactions are to be marked by mutuality, love and justice, not domination and enforced deference typical of many interactions in a hierarchical, competitive society. This verse provides a general orientation to guide specific actions in particular situations. It is a well-known guideline for human interaction in Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions (Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”).
The Sermon ends with contrasts and stark choices (Matthew 7:13-27). The few Jesus-followers are to take the narrow gate and hard road, and find life; the many who take the wide gate and easy road find destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). Matthew 7:24-27 employs another binary: two foundations, two builders, two responses to Jesus’ teaching, two destinies. Jesus-followers are to be wise and hear and obey Jesus’ words. It would be foolish and self-destructive to hear them and not act on them.
The preacher might engage how these scenes with their contrasting ways and destinations that close the Sermon relate to the way of life and practices set forth in the rest of the sermon. One approach understands the sermon addressing people who do not know God’s will. Jesus’ authoritative and definitive declaration of God’s will instructs them. Jesus-followers are to obey the teaching. Obedience results in vindication; disobedience means God’s condemnation.
A second approach sees the sermon as moral discourse that seeks to persuade or motivate followers to live accordingly. The problem is not a lack of knowledge as in the first approach but a lack of will. These scenes contribute to the persuasion by spelling out consequences of reward or punishment.
A third approach understands the sermon’s role as teaching followers to discern God’s ways and purposes. The sermon offers vignettes or visions or examples of life in God’s reign. It imagines a symbolic world in which disciples are to live and by which they are to see and understand, derive direction and make meaning of their lives. The sermon socializes followers, assisting them to grow in discerning structures and practices appropriate to God’s empire. These closing scenes continue this envisioning work by contrasting “for instances” of true and false ways of living appropriate to the divine purposes.
The first approach scares followers into obedience. The second woos followers. The third trains in discernment. Judging appropriately is a learned and necessary skill; it is not forbidden (Matthew 7:1). What is forbidden is claiming to know who is or who is not embraced within the mercy of God — and speaking and/or acting mercilessly.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of wisdom and groundedness, you have encouraged us to live our lives grounded in faith, patience, and love. Help us to love others without judgement, but with a solid foundation of acceptance, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen
How Firm a Foundation ELW 796, NCH 407
Deliver us, O Lord of Truth G3 750
Lead Kindly Light, Public Domain (text: John Henry Newman, melody: John Bacchus Dykes)
How Firm a Foundation, Mark Schweizer
Love is Love is Love is Love, Abbie Bettinis